Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Periyar, tiger reserve, lake and nature walk

Munnar was wonderful. But we had to leave, get along with our trip plan and move on. So, after having lunch, we moved out for Thekkady. We had a plan already in place and to materialize it, we had to hurry.

  As the whole route from Munnar to Thekkady goes through the mountains, you just cannot rush too much. Still, when we reached Thekkady, it was 5 minutes past 5 pm. The Tiger reserve was just closed for the day. Our plan had nothing to do with the Tiger reserve for that day. We had to find the forest department office. The plan was to book a whole day Bamboo Rafting activity that can only be booked in person or through a draft in advance. Well, we didn't opt for option two. And guess what, there was no seat left for the next day. All booked. Phewwww.

  All the blogs we read talked about similar experiences. So it was time to re-plan. Oh! By the way, while we're on the topic it might be good time to tell you about the different type of activity you can do at Periyar Tiger Reserve.

  The most common thing people do at Periyar Tiger Reserve is take a boat ride across the lake and try their luck with spotting wild life. It's an hour and half long boat ride and with luck, you might just spot some wild life. We did; just a few. It needs no previous booking and there is a mad rush when it happens. It has it's own story and we'll come to that soon. The other things you can do at Periyar are more versatile in nature. Bamboo Rafting is a whole day activity and is quite famous. It starts at 8 AM and stretches till 5 PM. It includes a three hour bamboo rafting and a three hour nature walk with breaks for lunch and snack. Then there are other activities like Border trekking, Nature walk, Bullock cart riding etc. 

  Back to our story. Our re-planned plan for the next day was to opt for the first boat ride on the lake. And then go for a Nature Walk activity. Yes, the Nature Walk was still available for the next day. With things settled for the next day, our search for a hotel began. By then, it was around 5:45 PM. We tried out some homestays but ultimately settled for a hotel which was quite near the entry gate of the tiger reserve. The room was good with clean bathroom. The restaurant was outside, just opposite to the hotel.

  When we were getting our luggage from Sparky(our car) to get to our room, we found a family of nilgiri langoor hanging around, on a tree opposite to the hotel. They were having a snack comprising of flowers ,from the tree. We also took some snaps of those friendly jungle dwellers. 

  Around 8 PM that night we went for dinner at the restaurant. We ordered a fish curry and chicken roast. It was awesome. Kerala food is just great as always. 

  We hit the bed early that day because according to the tiger reserve ticket seller, the queue for entry starts at around 5 AM in the morning. The ticket is distributed from 6 AM. Our plan for the next day was to check out of the hotel at 5 AM and get into the reserve with the car and eventually leave for Trivandrum once our Nature Walk was over. 

  The next morning at around 5:05 AM we reached the gate of the tiger reserve. Well, not exactly the gate; but behind a queue of 20 cars from the gate. At that early hour, there were so many people lined up for tickets. You don't get the boat tickets at the gate though. It's only the entry and parking ticket. You need to collect the boat ticket from the boat jetty counter which is like 2 KM inside the gate. And you can get only two tickets per person.

  Once the gate was open, every single car was rushing for the boat jetty. Not many overtaking, but definitely speed driving. And it got even better at the parking lot. Everyone started to run for the ticket counter which was still about 1 KM away. If you don't know the context, it would appear as if the last boat from earth is leaving and the meteor would hit within seconds.

   Anyway, we joined the mad rush too. We made it to the counter in time and there were only around 10 people ahead of us. Our running was propelled by the idea of having an upper deck ticket so that our chances of spotting wildlife increases. One important point is that you need to carry your gate entry pass to the boat counter. They stamp it or you don't get to get on the boat. Back to the story. When we submitted a form for tickets, I was awestruck to find that there were no upper deck available. 

  Anyway, after a brief waiting of 30 minutes, we got to get on the boat and soon all the boats got filled.

To facilitate the foreign tourists they are generally allocated either top tier or side rows.These are generally the best seats for wildlife spotting.So if you are a foreign tourist its a good news for you!!

Landscape of Periyar Lake

Landscape of Periyar Lake

  The boat ride is pretty good and we did spot some wild dogs,sambars,gaurs and boars. Birds were in abundance. There were cormorants, cranes, herons, kingfisher, snake bird and many more. But we think that the landscape by the lake has its own appeal. The misty morning costume gives the forest a different mysterious appearance. When we were back at the jetty, we still had about an hour before our Nature Walk. So we just relaxed and had a little snack at a restaurant near the jetty. 

Cormorant Family

Some sort of stork maybe

Group of Gaurs.

Sambar Deer.
  The Nature Walk is light trek kind of activity. Every group is led by an experienced forest guide. Although the cost per person is Rs. 200, you have to book it with minimum Rs. 800. You can find more info at Periyar Tiger Reserver Website

  Our guide was Mr. Raju and he seemed to be a very knowledgeable about the jungle. First he briefed us about the program and then took us inside the jungle. You have to cross a small creek before you get to the side of the jungle.

   Throughout the three hours trek, we learnt about several different types of plant and animals. He explained the ayurvedic nature of different types of plants. He helped us spot birds like great Indian hornbill, warbler, ground thrush, split tail drongo and some others. 

Ground Thrush

Scarlet Minivet

Kingfisher

Great Indian Hornbill

Nilgiri Langoor

  However, the bulls eye was hit by Soma. You know, she has this thing about wild life. Somehow she knows where to look. Even the experienced guide missed it. But Soma silently motioned us towards the branch of a tree that we were just crossing under. And there it was. A giant malabar squirrel. It was so well camouflaged that I have no idea how Soma found it. It played all around different branches of the tree. It noticed us for a moment but then completely ignored our presence.  It was a beautiful animal with vibrant colors on it.

Giant Malabar Squirrel

Giant Malabar Squirrel

Giant Malabar Squirrel
  The trek was over within three hours but we started to feel how much we walked. Anyway, we walked to the parking lot and relaxed for about 15 minutes before moving on. And again, it was Soma to do the wonder. Giant Malabar Squirrels again. And this time two of them. And they even did some circus tricks for us. Hats of to Soma, we got to see these animals from so close. BTW, we never got to see a single one of these at Bhadra.

  So, Periyar Tiger Reserve was a fantastic experience for us. And we would like to come back to this place once again. We moved on for Trivandrum.

Part of a hive.

Olibanum or Frankincense

The tree from which you get Olibanum or Frankincense.

Tiger's victim.

Cobra tree, cause it looks like it.

Butterfly.

Same butterfly.

Forest office, reservation center.

Rubber tree.
  Here are some info you might find useful:

  Our travel time: 1st week of February, 2013.

  Activities in Periyar Tiger Reserve:
  Boat ride: Rs. 150 / person (only two tickets issued to one person)
                 The first ride in the morning or the last ride of the day gives
                 the maximum chance to spot wildlife.

  Bamboo Rafting: Rs. 1500/ person (minimum two person to operate)
                          Should be great. No personal experience.

  Nature Walk: Rs. 200/ person (minimum Rs. 800 to operate)
                     It's a 3 hours jungle trek and it rocks.

  Other activities: Border hiking, bullock cart ride etc.

  Packages: Periyar Wildlife Department has packages for one night jungle camp and other activities. You can find more info at Periyar Tiger Reserve Website
   

   Hotel where we stayed: Green Palace Hotel. Double bed room rate is Rs. 750. The rate is likely to go up in peak season.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Alappuzha, Venice of the East


A visit to Kerala can never be complete without visiting its backwaters. Since we were in short of time so we were compelled to allot only half a day for Alappuzha ( or Aleppy ). We started from Thiruvananthapuram  early in the morning around 6:30 AM to avoid the city traffic and reached Alappuzha by 10:30AM (that included breaks).

  Once we reached Alappuzha, there were no markers on the roads as where the backwaters are. The city has so many lanes, bylanes criss crossing each other and running everywhere. Luckily for me, even if I get confused about the directions I don't need to worry. Ankur has a great sense of direction and is  very reliable to bank on. The auto drivers showed us the way and we soon reached the backwater side of the city.

  We went to the District Promotion Tourism Council Office at Alappuzha. There they told us about the various types of house-boat and shikara packages that they have. A 22 hour package on a house boat can vary from 4000 INR to 65000 INR depending on the amenities, food, number of rooms etc. Since we did not have much time, we opted for a two hour Shikara ride.

  The shikara is a small  boat with its roof covered. However all the sides are open and there are luxurious reclining seats, couch bags inside. The Shikara takes you leisurely through the backwaters to the Vembanad lake and again back to the boarding point.

  Since the temperature was high, we were not sure whether it would be enjoyable in the Shikara for too long. So initially we settled for a two hour ride. Once we got into the Shikara boat, what we got, was a surprise. Since the boat goes through the waterways, the air is cool and and the breeze too relaxing. We had no option but to ask the Shikara driver to increase our 2 hour duration to 3 hours.


Backwater canal

A two bedroom houseboat


Houseboat parking lot
  
Once the shikara starts, it slowly moves through the backwater canals. The surrounding is lush green with numerous coconut trees. There are some patches in the backwater where the trees form an arch and the boat moves through the narrow stretch of water under the arch. We got to see the village life from the shikara..... women washing clothes, men fishing with fishing rods made from a thin bamboo shoot with a long thread hanging from the stick's tip.
Men fishing with fishing rod

Chit chat and the coracles

  Our Shikara driver was a jovial person and a very good guide. We saw many house boats and he updated us with interesting bits of information like how much a 1 BHK/2 BHK house boat costs to the owner, charges for a day package on the various house boats and all. He also enthusiastically shot so many of our photos and was eager if we'd give a "titanic pose" for him to shoot. The calm breeze flowing through the Shikara  was so nice... it felt that the last 6 months fatigue has been wiped off.
Houseboat under construction

Local transport. Like bus stand, these are boat stands.
  After some 1.5 hours of riding we reached the Vembanad Lake. It is the longest lake in India. One side of the lake directs to Kollam, another to Kumarakom and another to Kochi. There are small islets on the lake and water birds flock on them. Ankur was fast to take as many photos of them from so close. From there our Shikara took us to another part of the backwater where there were rice fields on the grounds. We got out of our boat walked a few metres near the fields and again got back on the boat.


Cormorant

Giant egret and little cormorant

Cormorant

Family for sure

Snake bird
   We also saw a snake boat (local name is "Chundan Vallam") parked near the bank. The boats are more than 100 feet long and our guide told that this one was oared by 100 people during the famous Kerala boat race held every year.


Snake boat or Chundan Vallam

Stadium to watch Snake boat race
  Soon we realised that our Shikara was heading back to the boarding point from where we started the ride. Our 3 hour Shikara journey came to an end. We wish we could enjoy some more hours on the backwaters, but for us time was a constraint. We had to reach Kochi before evening. We thanked our Shikara driver cum guide for the wonderful time and the everlasting memories. And we hit the road for Kochi.


Our Guide cum Shikara driver:
Name: Thankachan
Mob: +919846427458

For House Boat/Shikara booking you can contact:
The Secretary,DTPC
Boat Jetty Road,Alappuzha
Ph: 2251796,2253308
www.dtpcalappuzha.com

Shiraka(silent motor boat) ride rate: Rs. 400/hour
Row Boat ride rate: Rs. 200/hour

Vembanad lake and the houseboat

Luxurious resort on Vembanad lake

A group of ducks taking a stroll

A loan harvester

Inside the Shikara

Its all green and blue at the backwaters

A row boat.



Sunday, 17 February 2013

Kochi, of Old World Charms


From Alappuzha ( Alleppey )  we started for Kochi at around 2:30 PM.We had a wonderful boat ride in Alappuzha. We reached Kochi around 4:30 PM. Though the distance between Alappuzha and Kochi is about 50 kilometers but it may take time depending upon the road traffic.

  We didn't know previuosly that Kochi is the old city and the new Kochi is actually Ernakulam, about 7Km from Kochi. Old Kochi is beautiful in its own way.... with its narrow lanes, old buildings, palaces, streets and all. We looked for hotels in Kochi ( Mattancherry ) but could not find anything immediately, so we went to Ernakulam.

  We went from Kochi to Ernakulam, but crossing the Thoppumpady BOT bridge (more commonly BOT bridge) via Wellington Island. The surrounding 
looks very scenic while crossing the bridge. We got into a hotel Chandrika Residency on MG Road. Non AC double bedrooms cost Rs 900 but the hotel is not worth the money. Though it has a restaurant but it is not good,the plates and cups dirty and the restaurant is closed most of the time.Maybe if you plan 
to visit Kochi try to avoid this hotel,I am sure you will get better staying options.

  After we got fresh,we took an auto and went to the Boat Jetty. There are sundown cruises available from Kochi Boat Jetty which starts from 5:30 PM(well its always 15 minutes late). You can book your tickets immediately before getting into the boats, there is no requirement for advance booking. It is roughly an hour cruise on the Vembanad lake costing Rs 150 per person. You can see the beautiful sunset from the river and some chinese fishing nets from far. We took the sunset tour in Kochi from SeaLand Tours and Travels (0484-2372122, 93429 80832). One thing that requires special mention is that the auto drivers in Kochi are not like money sucking vampire autowallas in Bangalore. The autowalla just took Rs 15 (minimum fare) from us to take us from our hotel to Boat Jetty though he understood us as tourists!! In fact I could not believe my ears and thought the fare was Rs 50. :)
At Marine Drive Boat Jetty

Sunset from the boat.

Government building and Chinese fishing nets during sunset.

KTDC cottages on the Vembanad Lake.
  The next day we left this hotel. We wanted to stay in Old Kochi for a day. Though the number of hotels is less but its a lot more cheaper there. Moroever all the important sight seeing places in Kochi are in old Kochi. We booked a hotel "Udupi Hotel". It was simple, yet comfortable and largely less expensive. We kept our things from our car and headed for Dutch Palace also called Mattancherry Palace and Jewish Synagogue. Both of them are close to one another.


Dutch Palace.
  Though the roads get narrower but all the important tourist places are properly shown on sign boards. So we did not face any problem in navigating.
After parking our car we went to the Dutch Palace.The entry is congested with vehicles and people. But inside its clean and less crowded. The palace was built by the Portuguese and gifted to  the then Raja of Kochi, Veera Varma. It is a rectangular shaped palace, looks pretty unconventional unlike other palaces. The fantastic thing about this palace is the murals that heavily decorate the walls. The murals have stories from Hindu scriptures mainly Ramayana. The entry ticket is Rs 5 for Indians and photography is not allowed inside.


Synagogue.
   From the Palace it is a very short walk to the Jewish Synagogue. The street is called Jew Street. This street is vibrantly colourful with shops selling artefacts, handworks, masks, clothes. Almost all the restaurants on this street have a small collection of old statues and antiques for its patrons to buy/see. As a lot of European tourists visit the synagogue (more than Indians ), so Jew Street looks more like an European alley. The synagogue is closed on Fridays. You need to deposit all your things before entering the synagogue. Entry tickets to synagogue is Rs 5 and photography is not allowed inside.


Jew Street

Handicrafts shop

Wall hang-able replicas of different types of masks. 

Restaurant displaying antiques.
  Since the midday sun was getting hot, it was becoming intolerable for us.We went back to hotel. For evening we had St Francis Church, Dutch cemetary and Fort Kochi(for Chinese fishing nets) to see. All these places are close to each other.

  Since the noon heatwaves took time to become soothing so we were also a little late for our afternoon sightseeing. By the time we reached St Francis Church it was closed. The church closes at 5 PM. From there we saw the Dutch cemetary which falls on the way, and a little further away is Fort Kochi. We came here to see the sunset along with the Chinese Fishing nets from very close. Fort Kochi has numerous homestays.


St. Francis Church

A shop next to the church. It was selling cotton dolls.

   There was one incident that I found sad yet funny. A Chinese fishing net owner was only allowing non Indians to walk on the platform where his fishing net was tied. He himself being an Indian was shooing away other Indians. I observed his actions for sometime then I realised he was doing that because he thought that foreigners will tip him for allowing them to walk on the platform of the fishing net and Indians will not... it feels bad to see discrimination in your own country... People in Kerala are just too good ( I fondly have so many anecdotes of nice helpful people ) so this must be well a worthless fellow, I laughed off the incident.


Chinese fishing nets.
Fish market at Fort Kochi.
  My Kerala trip came to an end, with Kochi as the last stopping point. The next day I was off for my good old Bangalore. Kerala was such an awesome place and it was such a wonderful trip. Kerala is so true to its name "God's Own Country".

Ernakulam city as seen from Vembanad Lake.

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